Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Houston, we have a problem.
The Big Question: Are the Astros headed for a long stretch of rough results?
It would appear so.
Outside of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Hunter Pence, there isn’t much to like about the Astros’ current talent pool.
Veteran outfielder Carlos Lee can usually be counted on for 25-plus home runs and a respectable slugging percentage, but his career is trending down quickly and he doesn’t move so well anymore out in left field. The ‘Stros owe him $18.5 million this season and another $18.5 million in 2012.
The well-traveled Brett Wallace ranks high on prospect boards, but he batted just .222/.296/.319 with two home runs in his first 159 major league plate appearances last year and his move from third base to first base significantly hurt his projected value. The kid can flat out hit and should eventually figure it out in the majors. The question is whether his bat is ever going to be elite enough for the position. In the National League, most good teams get great production at first base.
Florida native Chris Johnson put together a promising rookie year at third base, but he will turn 27 years old at the end of this season and does not have good range defensively. On top of that, his minor league numbers suggest that he’s in for a regression as a sophomore.
The lack of excitement doesn’t end with the 25-man major league roster either. The Astros did not have one player in Baseball America’s Top 40 prospect rankings this winter and the entire farm system was ranked 26th by BA earlier this month. The big league team is bad, the minor league teams are bad, and there’s still a damn hill out in center field at Minute Maid Park. If there are good times ahead for Houston baseball, some serious miracles are going to need to take place first. And Ed Wade, my friends, is no miracle worker.
If the Astros want to get better, they need to start mimicking the ways of smaller market teams. Don’t give long-term contracts to aging players. Commit money to scouting and development. Draft well. Get busy on the international market. Build a top-level presence in Latin America.
So what else is going on?
- New ownership may be on the horizon. According to a report this weekend from MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart, current owner Drayton McLane is talking to three different parties about a possible sale. McLane has toyed with selling the team in the past and not followed through, so we’ll have to wait for more details to surface before a better idea can be formed about how a new head honcho (or head honchos) would affect the direction of the team. The more money the better, but it’s not like McLane has been cheap. Houston businessman Jim Crane is thought to be a finalist.
- The Astros are going to have to make a decision on Pence pretty soon. He is entering his second year of arbitration eligibility and earned a whopping $6.9 million this offseason by winning his case against the team’s $5.15 million bid. Right now, that’s a fine price for a player with Pence’s ability but his salary is going to climb awfully close to $10 million next winter and he’ll be a free agent after 2013. Houston will either have to write its second $100 million contract (El Caballo got the first) or they’ll have to let the face of the franchise walk. The right call there, at least with the way things look now, would be to invest that kind of salary commitment into rebuilding. That, of course, comes at the risk of hurting ticket sales.
- The Astros have a ton of holes and problems throughout the organization, but their situation at catcher this season can safely be called the most troubling. The depth chart calls for Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles to split time at the position. Quintero posted a horrific .579 OPS across 276 plate appearances in 2010 and it wasn’t even the worst season of his career. Towles has drawn playing time in the major leagues each year since 2007 and can claim only 53 career hits for a .189 career batting average. Jason Castro was a high draft pick and may be productive in a few years, but he’s likely to miss the entire year while in recovery mode from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
- Back in the National League Central and back in a full-time role, 31-year-old infielder Bill Hall may be someone to keep an eye on. The former Brewers regular woke his career from its slumber last season in Boston, slugging 18 homers and stealing nine bases in 10 opportunities as a highly active utilityman. The Astros are going to start him at second base over Jeff Keppinger and he might be able to do some damage on Minute Maid Park’s short left field porch.
So how are they gonna do?
Really poorly. The Astros enjoyed a nice run in the early-to-mid 2000s, but it’s going to be a while before they get the taste of .500 baseball again in Houston. This season brings 90 losses for the first time since 2000 and a close-shave fifth place finish over the sixth-place Pirates at the bottom of the National League Central.